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Ulam, The South East Asia Salad

Ulam, The South East Asia Salad

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When we talk about salad, we usually picture a glass bowl consisting of colourful vegetables like romaine, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, peas, onions and many others, topped off with a sprinkling of dressing, making it a great choice for those on a raw food diet. The trend of eating raw food is based on the belief that raw foods contain intact phytochemicals that provide increased energy levels and improve skin texture, digestion, and resistance to infections. Full benefits are said to be derived from raw foods when they make up about 50% of one’s daily diet.


Here, in South East Asia, we have a somewhat similar dish where a variety of herbs (in place of the usual vegetables mentioned previously) can be eaten as ‘salad’. The plant parts of these herbs that consumed are the young shoots and leaves, and sometimes the flowers, fruits and roots.


If the aforementioned plant parts contain any sticky latex, they are lightly blanched or scalded in hot water before eating. In the South East Asia region alone, there are about 70 species of such edible herbs, which are called by the local name ‘ulam’. These include some of the traditional vegetables, which are generally cooked or lightly fried before being consumed.


Folks in South East Asia have for generations relished ulam. A simple traditional meal consists of rice with fish, occasionally meat (lauk), cooked vegetables (sayur) and ulam. The ulam is usually dipped in the accompanying hot fragrant tangy sauce (sambal) before eating to enhance its flavour. It used to be that plants used for ulam are found to be growing wildly in the jungle and on their fringes, in wastelands, along streams and in paddy fields.


However, the introduction of modern agriculture in food production, rapid expansion of rubber and oil palm plantations, coupled with massive infrastructure developments, have led to the displacement of much indigenous vegetation and this includes those used the ulam dishes. That said, some ulam plants can still be found in the rural villages and garden backyards of some household.


Essentially, Kerabu and Nasi Ulam are two popular dishes prepared with ulam.


Kerabu consists of the selected ulam mixed with an assortment of ingredients and interestingly the name of the kerabu dish takes after the name of the ulam used. For instance, if daun pegaga (Centella asiatica) is used in the preparation, it is named kerabu pegaga. Some of the favourite ulam used are daun pegaga (Centella asiatica), selom (Oenanthe javanica), kacang botor (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), peria (Momordica charantia), mengkudu (Morinda citrifolia) and papaya flowers (Carica papaya). The ulam is sliced into small pieces and mixed well with ingredients such as coconut milk, dried prawns, pounded chilli, sliced onions, tamarind juice, scraped coconut or fried uncooked rice. This mixed salad preparation is then served as a side dish during meals.


Nasi Ulam, or Ulam Rice, consists of a number of species of ulam that are sliced into small pieces and then mixed thoroughly with cooked rice that has been cooled down. The favourite ulam normally used are those with good fragrance, such as ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus), daun kesum (Polygonum minus), daun kaduk (Piper sarmentosum), daun kunyit (leaves of Curcuma longa), pudina (Mentha arvensis), etc. A number of other condiments are added to further enhance the flavour and fragrance of nasi ulam. These would include the pungent belacan (shrimp paste), dried prawns, ginger pepper, salt, scraped coconut, salted fish, serai (lemon grass, Cymbopogon citratus), and others. Nasi ulam is served as a main dish during meals.


Ulam can be considered as a traditional health food in South East Asia. Some of the health benefit of ulam :


  • nutrients normally destroyed by cooking or heat is retained (as ulam is consumed raw or lightly blanched)
  • generally free from pesticide residues as most ulam are source from plants growing in the wild or in home gardens (ulam are not usually commercially grown)
  • many types of ulam are packed with antioxidants, minerals and vitamins (reputed to be equivalent or higher than that of common vegetables found on supermarket shelves)
  • some ulam plants are known to have medicinal value for treating particular ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, fever, coughs and skin rashes
  • believed to play a role in cleansing of the blood, proper functioning of the kidneys, liver and digestive system, inducing uterine contractions
  • aids in maintaining a youthful complexion
Norshilah Kamaruddin

A regular contributor to YesMyWellness.com, Norshilah who graduated from from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (MSc of Clinical Psychology), is a seasoned counselor working with individuals, group and family therapy for children, adolescents, and adults on an inpatient and outpatient basis. A devoted parent of 3 bubbly kids, Norshilah loves to collect, try out and share life hacks (only those that really works!) and occasionally works on her little garden, growing traditional herbs like Misai Kucing, Pegaga, Cekur, Daun Kesum, Lengkuas, Lemongrass and many others.

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